This is a roaring time for the people of Owo, an ancient town in Ondo State. The town has just installed a new traditional ruler, Oba Ajibade Gbadegesin Ogunoye, the Olowo of Owo. Another son, Rotimi Akeredolu, is the governor, the second son of the city to be so elected. The ascension to the throne of Ogunoye ended a 50 years circle which has polarized the city and which led to much bitterness and occasional bloodshed. The coming of Ogunoye was heralded by so much display of unity and goodwill. One can only wish that the new oba should understand the import of his universal acceptance and never take his people for granted.
The Olowo occupies a special position among Yoruba princes. He is regarded as a brother of the more famous Oba of Benin. However since the 20th Century, the Olowo’s profile has risen and his influence pervasive. This is due more to the work and rivalries of two great friends and cousins, Oba Olateru Olagbegi and Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, the first elected Governor of old Ondo State (including the present Ekiti State). That Ogunoye is coming to the throne peacefully is an indication that the Owo people have learnt their lessons and are ready to tap from the unique history and resources of their ancient kingdom.
Fifty years ago, Oba Olateru-Olagbegi was chased away from his palace by angry citizens bent on toppling him. In the past, such an incident would have been unthinkable. In pre-colonial Yorubaland, obas who have lost favours of their people were usually advised to sleep. The leading chief would present him a ritual calabash after which the Kabiyesi would be given seven days to take care of his estate and then retire into the royal chamber to have his final sleep. But by 1960, Yorubaland was in a different dispensation and the obas now have the government to contend with. The obas were no longer the government.
It was his desire to be a part of the government at all cost that harvested trouble for Olagbegi. When his cousin, then Mr Ajasin, the first principal of Imade College, Owo, told Kabiyesi about the formation of a nascent political party, the Action Group, Olagbegi was enthusiastic. He was young, dashing and had a good appetite for women. He loved sports and was an enthusiastic lawn tennis player. The king was the exact opposite of his fastidious cousin who was a serious monogamist and steely ideologue. But opposite attracts and both men were unrelenting Yoruba nationalists and they love Owo with devotion.
It was not surprising that Chief Obafemi Awolowo, shortly after he and his team kept vigil in Ile-Ife in 1951 to light the lamp with 16 eyes, they retreated to Owo where they formally proclaimed the existence of the AG at the Olowo’s expansive palace. Their enthusiastic host were the duo of Kabiyesi and Ajasin. Within a decade, they have become sworn enemies.
Ajasin maintained his friendship with Awolowo but the Olowo pitched his tent with Chief Ladoke Akintola, the embattled successor of Awolowo as Premier of the Western Region (now Lagos, Ogun, Ekiti, Edo, Ondo, Delta, Osun and Oyo states). During one of the political flares in Owo, Ajasin barely escaped with his life. His car was burnt. At that time, Ajasin was not only a school principal, he was also a member of the House of Representatives in Lagos. That was the era when politics was not a full time job.
For Olagbegi however, it was the best of times. In the crisis that rocked the AG, Akintola eventually secured the premiership and Awolowo was sent to prison. Oba Adesoji Aderemi, the Ooni of Ife, had retreated into his palace in Ile-Ife after he resigned as the Governor. He declined to go back to the House of Chiefs, the second chamber of the regional legislator. When the new Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Gbadegesin Ladigbolu, was offered the headship of the chamber, he declined also. Akintola then offered the job to Olagbegi who took it with alacrity.
As President of the Council of Chiefs, the Olowo was an enthusiastic Akintola supporter. When asked why he was supporting Akintola instead of his old friend, Ajasin, he said he did not want his salary reduced to one penny per annum. That was the unique punishment Akintola gave to Oba Akinsanya, the Odemo of Ishara in the present Ogun State, who did not hide his partisanship in favour of Awolowo. Then the coup of January 15, 1966.
For Olagbeji, the good times was over. Akintola was dead and the First Republic was consigned to the waste bin of history. Olagbegi was in trouble and he sought help from the new military governor, Lt. Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi. But his troubles endured and despite all efforts, Fajuyi’s successor, Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo, could not help him. Adebayo finally deposed the Olowo in 1968.
When I was the Chief Correspondent of the National Concord in Akure during the Second Republic, Olagbegi’s nemesis, Chief Ajasin, was the governor. It was at this time that I met Kabiyesi Ogunoye, Olagbegi’s successor, Ogunoye was a conservative monarch, not a socialite like his predecessor. He took his job with seriousness and generous spirit. He was not a politician. He was regarded as one of the leading traditional rulers in the old Ondo State along with the likes of Deji of Akure, Ewi of Ado-Ekiti, the Elekole of Ikole-Ekiti and the Osemawe of Ondo. His reign was relatively peaceful and he was loved by his subjects. Then he died in 1994. His predecessor as Olowo outlived him.
During his years of exile, the deposed Olowo was usually referred to as Sir Olateru Olagbegi for he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom in 1960 for his service to the British Empire. Now that Ogunoye was dead, Olagbegi wanted his old job back. There were expected obstacles to his ambition. Ajasin was alive and still politically portent. His protégé, Evangelist Bamidele Olumilua, was now the governor of Ondo State.
One day in 1993, Papa Ajasin was in his house when he heard the news that Olagbegi was back in the Olowo’s palace. Governor Bamidele Olumilua, who had been assured by security agencies that Owo was ready for the old king, took his decision. He presented his old mentor with a fait accompli. When TELL magazine sent a reporter to talk to Ajasin on the return of the king, he said simply: “I am in my house, the Olowo is in his palace.”Long life had presented Olagbegi with the ultimate prize. He had outlived his successor and now had the opportunity to die as a king. When he died in 1998, he was succeeded by his first son, Folagbade.
The coming of Oba Folagbade Olagbegi was acrimonious, leading to needless violence and death. Many of his opponents felt that a son cannot succeed his father on the throne. Indeed, primogeniture, which is still practiced in Benin till today, is not popular in Yorubaland. But the new Olowo stood his ground as he was well defended by those called the “palace boys,” who risked everything to ensure that Oba Folagbade Olagbegi remained on the throne. In the end, peace entered Owo when Governor Olusegun Agagu was able to broker a peace deal, making the Olagbegis to agree that all branches of the Owo Ruling House, is entitled to the throne.
The peaceful coming of Oba Ogunoye is an indication that both the spirit and the letter of the Agagu Truce is reigning in Owo. After 50 years, Owo has at last found its keel. It is no wonder that when the Governor was celebrating the traditional wedding of his daughter, the who-is-who in Nigeria moved to Owo to honour him. It was also to honour the new found essence of Owo and the dawn of a new reign. For the Olowo, it means an auspicious beginning.